The film will likely draw comparisons to the story of Ruth Madoff, wife of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff. Though Allen downplays the connection, Blanchett did do some research into their story, as well as other society doyens deposed by the economic collapse.

"I followed that story in the paper like everyone else, but it was not an influence in any way on the movie," Allen said of the Madoff story, while noting that he was inspired by something his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, told him of a high-society woman who had to take a job after losing her wealth.

Perhaps what drew him to the idea was an opportunity to look at the all-too-human weakness for self-delusion, the ways in which we all often have to convince ourselves of lies big and small to make it through the day and press on with our lives.

Though the two never did have a conversation regarding the big ideas of the film, Blanchett picked up a clue from an off-the-cuff comment by Allen.

On the phone from Sydney, Australia, where she has been appearing onstage in Jean Genet's "The Maids," Blanchett recalled, "He wouldn't even remember saying it, but he said something along the lines of, 'We all know the same truth, and that our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.'"

Allen prefers not to think of his work as some sort of veiled autobiography or a series of extended notes on the human condition. Perhaps belying his roots as a teenage joke-writer and early work as a nightclub comedian, he sees his goals as far more modest.

"I'm thinking of entertaining," he says of what motivates his writing. "That I feel is my first obligation. Then, if you can also say something, make a statement or elucidate a character or create emotions in people where they're sad or laughing, that's all extra. But to make a social point or a psychological point without being entertaining is homework. That's lecturing."

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While his recent films have seen him traipsing across Europe, shooting in London, Barcelona, Paris and Rome – and he has just begun production on a film in the South of France – Allen saw "Blue Jasmine" as a distinctly American story. New York was an obvious location for a film touching on a financial scandal, but his choice of San Francisco as the film's second location, home to the character of Blanchett's sister played by Hawkins, came down to where he thought he could spend a comfortable summer.

"Her sister could have lived anyplace and it would have been fine. I couldn't live anyplace, that was the problem," he said.

Allen is notoriously hands-off as a director, with apocryphal stories of his meeting performers for only a few minutes during casting and then barely speaking to them during production. Yet having directed six Oscar-winning performances, he must be doing something right. As far as his leading lady, he said, "I mean, she's Cate Blanchett, what can you do? You hire her and get out of the way."

Though he is prone to referencing old-guard art house stalwarts such as Bergman, Fellini or Kurosawa, Blanchett compares him to filmmakers she has worked with such as David Fincher, Jim Jarmusch, Wes Anderson or Steven Soderbergh, framing him as a contemporary working filmmaker in a way his legend often precludes. Since Blanchett and Allen had never worked together, part of her preparation was to speak with other actors who had worked with him and to study the 2011 "American Masters" documentary on him.

"Frankly, I thought he thought I was awful for the bulk of the film," Blanchett admitted, noting that for her the breakthrough came when she realized it wasn't her, it was him.

"Once you realize that Woody is never pleased, he is never satisfied, that's why he makes a film a year, that's why he's so prolific as a filmmaker," she said. "You realize he is actually in some exquisite agony and it's horrific for him often to hear what he's written. It's as much to do with himself as the actors and once you don't take that personally, I really relished the frankness."

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Allen acknowledged one unintended consequence of his prolific output is that his films almost exist in some way outside of his control. Likening the process to a series of sessions of psychoanalysis, he said, unconsciously recurrent themes emerge over years of work.

With its structure that teeters between the problems of the past and the struggles of the present, "Blue Jasmine" grapples directly with the twined difficulties of looking back and moving forward, and how we can all become an unreliable narrator to ourselves.

"I think I was always reflective," he noted, "I think that may have been a strength and a weakness. Early on, going as far back as 'Annie Hall,' there are all these cerebral characters talking about life, thinking about death, thinking about the meaning of life, thinking about why relationships didn't work, always thinking and verbalizing their thoughts, always reflecting.

"I think I'm no more reflective now," he added with a slight giggle, "at death's door. But you do get conscious of it. But I was conscious of aging at 14."

So if he could go back, by the way, what other profession might he have chosen?

"I might have been happier if I was a novelist," he replied. "So instead of having to raise millions of dollars to put on these stories, the novelist sits at home; you write, if you don't like it you throw it away. If I throw something away, I'm throwing away $100,000 every time I take a scene out. So that might have been a better thing. Or music might have been a better thing."

He seemed to be opening up now, genuinely taking stock of his life and career and looking down roads not taken.

"If I really can go back, early, early, early in my life" — and here he clasped his hands together and pulled them back as the windup to one final curveball — "maybe a ballet dancer."

Woody Allen — perhaps joking, perhaps not — exists, you might say, at the very intersection of the two, a playful showman amid uncompromising self-examination. As supporting evidence for either case, he added, "I was a very athletic kid."

mark.olsen@latimes.com